Flu outbreak now labeled an 'epidemic' as deaths mount

SEATTLE - A flu outbreak across the country is now being called an "epidemic" as cases spike in 22 states this month - and Washington state is not immune from the danger.

Just two weeks ago, King County health officials predicted this year's flu season would be one of the worst in a long time - aggravated by the fact that this season's flu vaccine is apparently not a good match to the predominant strain going around.

So far, the hardest-hit states are in the Southeast and Midwest sections of the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Fifteen children have died nationwide from the flu, including three in Minnesota alone. Last season, no children died from the flu in that state.

Health officials feel that the flu epidemic has increased because the H3N2 strain mutated and therefore reduced the effectiveness of this season's pre-prepared vaccine. The vast majority of flu cases this year had been of the H3N2 subtype, according to the CDC, and it has even been fatal to children with no known underlying health issues.

But the hardest hit group is actually older adults over the age of 65.

"Though we cannot predict what will happen the rest of this flu season, it's possible we may have a season that's more severe than most," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden stated during a recent press conference.

In Washington state, the newest numbers released 10 days ago by the state Department of Health show that the danger also is increasing here.

So far this season, seven people have died from the flu in this state. On an activity scale - rating states from minimal to high - the CDC puts Washington state in the middle.

The flu outbreak already has forced the closure of one local private school. Eastside Preparatory School shut down a week before Christmas after 20 percent of the student body came down with the flu.

Trish Brown, a local physician's assistant, said people can cut down the flu risk by taking basic common-sense steps.

"Hand hygiene, coughing into your elbow, sneezing into your elbow, will do a lot to prevent the spread of the flu," she said.

Health officials also are encouraging people to get a flu shot. Even though the vaccine does not prevent the mutant H3N2 flu strain, health agency officials feel that it should still provide some type of protection against the illness.